Volkswagen offers the Jetta with a choice of four powerplants and three transmissions, with a hybrid sedan coming soon to the model range. Let's make it simple for now: TDI or GLI.
On the least expensive Jetta sedan, you'll find a 2.0-liter four-cylinder, with either a six-speed automatic or a five-speed manual. It has just 115 horsepower, and is a dated engine design that's been referred to in the past as the "two-point-slow." Everyone needs a price leader, but usually, there's a bigger fuel-economy benefit to being the smallest engine in the lineup. Not here: the 2800-pound Jetta S with this engine is a sluggish performer, but it doesn't get the fuel economy numbers to justify the drop in performance. It's really reserved for only the most frugal shoppers who won't have anything but a German logo on the decklid--something to justify a 0-60 mph time of about 11 seconds, about as slow as a Honda Insight.
After hundreds of miles spent in the mainstream Jetta with its 2.5-liter, 170-hp five-cylinder, we've found it to be a better choice in every way from the base car. It's quicker by far--0-60 mph happens in about 8.0 seconds--but the thrust is delivered with some grumpy engine noises that are typical of five-cylinder engines. The flat power delivery works fairly well with the six-speed automatic, but fuel economy is below par for a class that includes 40-mpg superstars like the Chevy Cruze Eco and Ford Focus SFE.
The former fuel efficiency champ in the Jetta lineup was the clean-diesel TDI model, which has its own passionate and longstanding fan base. The 140-hp 2.0-liter turbodiesel four puts out 236 lb-ft of torque, while almost matching the 2.5-liter gasoline five for quiet running and coming close to its straight-line performance. The TDI diesel knocks off a 0-to-60-mph time in 8.7 seconds, and drivers always enjoy the strong and steady surge of torque that delivers that acceleration.
The TDI comes standard with a notchy but precise six-speed manual, but for drivers who don't want to shift, it offers a version of VW's dual-clutch automated manual transmission that knocks out shifts faster than some conventional automatics. It's perfectly suited to the narrow power band of the low-revving diesel, and while it lacks the paddle shifters of the GLI, it delivers excellent fuel economy: 34 mpg combined (30 mpg city, 42 mpg highway).
Supplanting the TDI for the fuel-efficiency wreath is the new-for-2013 Jetta Hybrid. VW has given up on trying to sell diesels to hybrid buyers; its research shows that they are demographically different purchasers, and simply won't cross-shop one for the other. So it has added a new and well-sorted hybrid model that it expects to make up about 5 percent of overall Jetta sales--and attract new buyers who wouldn't previously have consider a Jetta because no hybrid was offered.
The 2013 Jetta Hybrid uses a 150-hp turbocharged 1.4-liter four-cylinder, an engine that hasn't been offered in any VW sold here until now but is widely used in Europe. It’s paired to a 20-kilowatt (27-hp) electric motor, with a clutch on either end, and the company's seven-speed dual-clutch gearbox automated manual transmission. Output of the combined gasoline-electric powertrain is 170 hp. Volkswagen projects a combined EPA rating of roughly 45 mpg, and our road tests indicate that real-world gas mileage could be close to that.
For its smallest hybrid, and first volume hybrid entry, VW has done a good job is suppressing the annoying features of hybrid powertrains. The 114 lb-ft of torque delivered by the small electric motor is enough to accelerate the car away from a stop--with a light foot on the accelerator--up to speeds as high as 37 mph. On even the slightest, most undetectable downhill roads, the Jetta Hybrid will switch off its engine and slip into "sailing" mode, in which it is propelled only by the electric motor, for short stretches that turn out to make a real difference to efficiency. The 1.1-kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery pack can propel the car up to 1.2 miles electrically, under ideal conditions, but VW lets drivers opt for all-electric power via an “E-Mode” button on the console. It locks out the gasoline engine, though it compromises acceleration, and raises the all-electric top speed of the hybrid Jetta to 44 mph.
With these versions of the Jetta, Volkswagen's adopted a simpler rear-beam suspension that makes the car less expensive to build than one with independent links. It's a decision some VW fans rue, but few drivers notice unless they're pressing the limits of their mid-grade Jetta--which is to say, not very often. These Jettas remain composed, with ride quality that's still better than some independent-suspension compacts in the class, with more body roll than the smaller Jettas of the past but much of the same, recognizable VW road manners.
This Jetta drops the old model's electric power steering for old-fashioned hydraulic actuation, and it feels more natural and responsive as a result. On the open road, the Jetta's tire slap sounds soothingly familiar to anyone who's driven a Golf or Passat, and there's next to none of the bounding and hopping you might feel in a Kia Forte, for example. Brake feel is strong, confident and deep—though we’re curious to see how those drums feel after a few winding roads.
VW throws a couple of curve balls into this equation. The first is the Jetta GLI, the turbocharged Jetta with 200 horsepower emanating from the 2.0-liter four-cylinder. One of the best-known powerplants in the VW corporate world, the torquey turbo four comes on boost low in the rev range, and pushes out consistent, exciting power into the 6000-rpm range. It growls and whistles while it works, putting an aural exclamation point on the exit points on curves, bringing silly grins every time you tap into the boost, doling out slightly notchy shifts and long pedal strokes with the standard six-speed manual, or pinball-quick gear changes via the available dual-clutch box's paddle controls. We wish this were the base Jetta powertrain, since it delivers 7-second 0-60 mph times just like some bigger, more basic Asian sedans, but with a lot more engaging manners.
The Jetta GLI gets those manners from a different rear suspension than other models. The swap-out turns the torsion-beam axle on other models to a true independent suspension. While they're changing out parts, VW also lowers the ride height, tightens the springs and shocks, and adds electric power steering and an electronically simulated front-differential lock dubbed XDS, which helps tighten the GLI's line in corners. The GLI wears standard 17-inch wheels and rear disc brakes, too, with 18-inch wheels as an option. The result: a sedan that's great at 7/10ths driving, with alert steering and a nicely damped ride. More precise than base versions, the GLI isn't as sporty as purists can imagine in their wildest Wolfsburg dreams, but does underscore the German advantage in suspension tuning when it's held up against almost all of the Asian-brand compacts we can think of.
Another curve ball is the SportWagen, which still rides atop the last-generation Jetta architecture. More compact, with an independent rear suspension distinct from the one in the GLI, the SportWagen comes with either five-cylinder or TDI powertrains, as well as even better-tuned handling. We regularly recommend the Jetta SportWagen TDI over crossovers for its well-weighted electric power steering and for its excellent ride. Braking is superb, too, and given the choice, we'd opt for the dual-clutch transmission in the wagon just as in the TDI sedan.
Lastly, there's the Jetta Hybrid, a gas-electric version of the sedan that's due shortly. We'll be driving it soon--and we'll update this page as soon as we've put some miles on one.